City of forgotten dreams

City of forgotten dreams

The book unravels the constellations of social, institutional and religious histories of Pakistan

Mehreen Zahra-Malik
December 26 , 2014
03 Min Read

All cities are mad, they say, but the madness is gallant. All cities are beautiful, but this beauty is grim. In the city of Karachi, the protagonist of Steve Inskeep’s Instant City: Life & Death in Karachi, the beauty, and especially the madness, often originate from people finding themselves ever so often “on the wrong side of the dividing lines”. The book, then, in some ways can be read as a testimony to the agonising struggle over the soul of the city, and a sense of belonging, amongst Karachi’s residents across the ages.

The two emblematic moments of this struggle are Partition and General Ayub Khan’s coup. They are also emblematic moments in the age of what Inskeep calls ‘the instant city’.


“The Partition of India could look so clean on a map,” Inskeep writes. “Muslims over here, Hindus over there, borderlines in between. It was never that simple.” For Inskeep, Partition marks one of the grand moments in Karachi’s instantaneous transformation. Nearly 51 per cent of the city was Hindu when the cataclysmic event of Partition tilted the earth on which millions of Indians stood and “Muslims began tumbling downward into Karachi’s reluctant embrace”.

The influx of vast numbers of Muslims as refugees and Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s inability to stake out a position for the Hindus — “How could he propose unity as he led Muslims into a division so profound?” Inskeep asks — left the minorities stunned survivors, abandoned subjects, forced migrants. Here, the concept of instantaneity that Inskeep attaches to the spatial concept of the city becomes somewhat clear; it was as if the moment of Partition changed Karachi overnight from the city “where it was common for Hindus to pay homage at the shrines of Sufi saints and for Muslims to celebrate Hindu festivals” into the one marred today by the kind of divisions that culminate in attacks like the deadly December 2009 bombing of a Shia religious procession.

This Karachi disfigured by constant tensions and instabilities appeared as if “in a blink,” growing not only in the number of people it held but also in terms of their “frustrated dreams and unintended consequences.”

Other inadvertent changes to the fabric of Karachi occurred over ten years later with General Ayub Khan’s attempt to move people out of central Karachi’s informal neighbourhoods into rambling new suburbs with subsidised homes.

The chapter on the construction of one such settlement, Korangi, is an account of how urban development creates the debris of places and people cast outside the pale of value; how such repositories of society’s leftovers often take a turn for the unexpected, ending up exacerbating the very problems they had set out to correct.

In Karachi’s case, illegal developments and slums crept up in the planned communities and many people were quickly forced to abandon them for want of adequate affordable housing and commuting options.

This kind of eviscerating urbanism, as Inskeep argues throughout the book, is central to the ways in which Karachi has changed. This is sometimes a source of jeopardy to urban life and economy, setting into motion a high-speed version of the process that has led so many ancient cities to ruin.

What will Karachi’s fate be? Inskeep’s answer: Karachi will decide for itself. Indeed, Partition and Ayub’s coup are only two examples of the startling results of attempts, both deliberate and accidental, to refashion Karachi into something it’s not. Inskeep’s book is littered with many more such lightning rods of how grand dreams in some of the world’s greatest cities are buried by simple entropy.

Through his thick description of Karachi, Inskeep not only unravels the constellations of social, institutional and religious histories of Pakistan itself, but also gently reminds us that Karachi shares this feature of schizophrenic growth — its instantaneity — with countless other anxious “instant cities” in the developing world.

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